Fantasy

The Last Wish

The Last WishThe Last Wish by Andrej Sapkowski is the first The Witcher item I have read. No, I have never played the game and no, I have never seen any video or show. So, this is basically my introduction to The Witcher. However, I also live in wild times with y’all and therefore I cannot say I was utterly blank when it came to this series and this character. How do I know about The Witcher? I could not say, except to suggest some sort of ambient knowledge that I absorbed unawares. This is a collection of stories that was first published in Polish in 1993.  In English, the first release was 2007.  I have had it on my TBR list since 2018.

I have reviewed about thirty novels on this blog this year, so far, and I think there are only a couple that I could call fun.  Lots of other adjectives could be used to describe all the other novels, including “entertaining,” “interesting,” and “engaging.” Some novels would get words on the other end of the spectrum. However, The Last Wish and maybe East of Desolation would get the word “fun” pinned to them.

I expected something along the lines of the usual sword and sorcery fantasy that we have all come to know and love.  I was not super excited to read the book, but I felt I could settle in with it being the third book of the week in the Appalachians.  Well, it was far better than I expected.

None of that farmboy becomes hero and everyone roots for the unlikely shining hero over the darkness that overfell the land stuff. This is grimdark-medieval themed and maybe just ever so slightly has hints of Eastern European influence, which makes sense and is a welcome change. It does not feel like so-called “appropriated” Slavic mythology (Cp. certain YA books) and these influences are only that – not burdensome heavy anvils to drag around. The writing is fresh and ribald and witty.  Read superficially, there is a lot of action and fun.  A little closer look shows there are some interesting concepts that the author is toying with. Concepts in ethics and religion, especially.

Many readers felt that the dialogue was not very good. I have no idea what they mean. Seriously, after reading some comments from other readers I was ready for some very stilted and awful writing.  Yet as I read along the one thought I kept having about the characters was that they are all very realistic.  They are neither, none of ’em, good or evil.  Their conversation and phrasing is true to how I hear people talk. Oh, I know most people think they are speaking in Old English at Buckingham Palace. I know most people feel like they are in the Ivory Tower and they are eloquently pontificating on the finer linguistic details of their chosen reading material.  But guess what – no, they are not.  The seeming inconsistencies in character show through in this novel not as inconsistent characters, but realistic personalities.  Characters are rarely good or evil.  Some of them are blatant with their status and some are more subtle. Mostly, everyone is in a mix of some good, some bad, trying to get through the day in a dog-eat-dog world. With the occasional monster.

Frankly, I found the stories in this book fresh, fun, interesting, and a good variety of creatures and characters. I loved several scenes in the book wherein characters strongly choose to be pragmatic, honest, exasperated, or stubborn. In one story when Geralt is talking with Nenneke, he starts having sharing things that in other books would be “personality insights” and “character development.”  But here, Nenneke shuts him down abruptly:

“Stop it,” she said sharply.  “Don’t cry on my shoulder. I’m not your mother, and I won’t be your confidante either. I don’t give a shit how she treated you and I care even less how you treated her. And I don’t intend to be a go-between or give these stupid jewels to her.” — pg. 270

In another story, a queen named Calanthe jousts with Geralt over supper. Their back and forth is witty, sarcastic, intelligent, but more than anything, it is realistic. It is not some weird stilted conversation had in some other books. This meandering, but sharp-edged conversation is fun to read. Particularly at a wild dinner party that is getting increasingly out of hand. Calanthe and Nenneke are just two of the female characters that seem to have no problem putting The Witcher in his place, so to speak. I would not call them weak or stereotypical female characters, either.  Among the comments at the table, Calanthe remarks:

“I’ve been told that witchers are an interesting caste, but I didn’t really believe it. Now I do. When hit, you give a note which shows you’re fashioned of pure steel, unlike these men molded from bird shit……” – pg. 166

Its realistic writing that is refreshing to read. I barked a laugh at the lines here and told myself I would have to include them in my review. Many times in the book, characters state something outlandish and another character just refuses to “follow them down the bunny trail” of ridiculous.  To use an example, no, it is not always special food demons that come from unfaithful kitchens – sometimes its just indigestion or overeating. That sort of thing.  It keeps a fantasy novel that is full of monsters and swordplay from viewing everything through the “its magical” lens.

I do not know what to say about Yennefer. I do not particularly like her, that is for sure. And the last wish…. hah, what a great writing ploy Sapkowski used on us! Bravo, well done. I guess it is all okay with me for Geralt and Yennefer to have crossing fates, because I know that Dandilion is on Geralt’s side and Dandilion is absolutely 100% awesomeness. He is a great character and I am very glad I met him and I am even more glad that he is Geralt’s buddy. Ack, who is not a bit jealous of such friendships?

The characters in this book are realistic because they do not fall into those neat categories that other fantasy novels rely on so very much. They are morally ambiguous or situationally ethical. They sometimes surprise and are also sometimes predictable.

“Stregobor,” said Geralt, “that’s the way of the world. One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off.  Men hang from trees at the roadside; brigands slash merchants’ throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters.  In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at  banquet every minute, blue from poisoning.  I’m used to it.” — pg. 105

There is a somberness to the book as well. Both with the Yennefer scenario and the origin of Geralt as a child and then witcher. But also in the viewpoints sometimes expressed, which seem weary and worn. Some readers took offense at some of the ribald and wild moments in these stories. I find their comments ridiculous because in a land of monsters wherein everyone is fighting for power, magic, or might – acting shocked by these characters’ actions is silly. Characters are rough and they live in a rough world. As Geralt said above, that’s the way of the world. So, readers should not shun this book because “rough things” happen in it.

Anyway, of course I will read more The Witcher items. I think maybe this particular book will hang around in the collection awhile, as well. It surprised me because it was much better than expected.

4 stars

Elantris

ElantrisI am finding this novel a very difficult novel to review.  I managed to type the title on this entry and then a lot of time passed; the fan clicking overhead, the birds outside chirping, and me:  utterly lost in my own head trying to sort out some thoughts that maybe are not specifically about Elantris, but Elantris was the catalyst.  Elantris by Brandon Sanderson was published in 2005.  It is Sanderson’s first published novel and I distinctly remember reading somewhere that he finished the first draft, at least, prior to 2000.

[Seriously, I cannot emphasize enough how many times the screen-saver on this laptop has auto-popped while I have sat here after typing a sentence on this post.]

At those times when a situation seems perplexing, I can rely on my Aristotelian traditions and look at things per se; cutting out the inessential appearances for just the actual reality.  Did I like this novel – yes or no? Yes. My answer comes without hesitation because it would be untrue to say that I did not like it.  All right, what is the thing that I liked best about the novel? I liked that its a “soap opera.”  What did I dislike the most about the novel? Pacing.  Who was my favorite character?  Probably Roial.  Would I recommend this novel to others?  Yes, its a long novel so I would not recommend it to folks that I know who…….. do not have the attention span that would be needed.

The novel is a glorified soap opera.  I think most of the novels in the fantasy genre are this way.  And I recognize I have introduced the term “soap opera” as if the meaning is utterly clear. Well, when I say that term I refer to melodramatic scenes and characters within the sweeping “operatic” manner in which the timeline unfolds.  Take any fantasy novel and write the main events as non-adjectival, no qualifier points. Tell the “story” of the novel as if you are an historian writing as impartially as you can a hundred years after the fact.  In this story, we could perhaps bullet point:

  • marriage between prince and foreign princess
  • religious leader arrives for mission in city
  • unexpected medical event occurs

Far less of us readers would read that novel – because then, it is not entertaining at all. Its research, knowledge, etc.  If readers are interested in history, they want history – and usually with a depth of research and analysis folded into excellent presentation.  Readers drawn to fantasy recognize the soap opera styling and want to read about hugely melodramatic magical events and characters.

However:  and this is a stern statement to my fellow readers – do not pick up this fantasy [soap opera] and complain about it being a fantasy [soap opera].

The skeleton of this novel is that it is a zombie story placed in the context of typical nation-state wrangling for control.  Drive a thick beam of religion through the whole thing and that’s Elantris.  So, at its very base, this is a rather simple novel.  We should expect, and we do indeed get, a lot of political machinations, religious fervor and positioning, and a generally “mysterious” situation that is both key and not at all vital to the story.

One of my good friends wrote a blog review (from 2017) wherein they describe the novel as underwhelming.  They felt the author took no risks and the book ended up rather monotonous and mediocre. They gave it a 5 of 10 marks.  That’s not a spectacular rating, indeed.   However, I do have one very picky point to make:  my friend did not actually read the novel… it was an audiobook.  I strongly assert that entirely changes the novel. Nevertheless, I am going to say that some of the criticisms are valid.

Because the whole book is based on the political maneuvering of the city-states, there is a lot of potential for the author to really grab these concepts and wrangle them into exciting, intricate, and maybe even controversial postures. Instead, there seems to be a lot of hand-waving at political problems, making it read less like Plato/Socrates and more like Cratylus.  Our one political expert in the novel, Sarene, does have brief moments of fiery political opinion – but its incredibly short lived and rather more emotional than substantive. Like my friend said, no risks were taken.  So tell us, Sanderson, which political schema is the strongest, which is the best, which do you prefer, which are we going to experiment with in this book, which one of these is any different from the others?   Instead, we are somewhat led to believe the state Fjordell is run by brutal leaders, but that may or may not be truly bad. We never learn much detail about that place, anyway.

Similarly with the religious aspects – and there is a heavy amount of those in this book.  Now, Sanderson admits that his personal religious lifestyle does allow him to consider working various religious situations into his fiction.  I do not think he said anywhere that he is peppering his novels with his own religious viewpoints – you know, such as I call agenda fiction.  However, I do think that if an author is going to heavily rely on religion as a storytelling prop – and make it such a large portion of a novel – then they also need to make the religions come alive, be vibrant, be distinctive.  Frankly, as with the politics, he took no risks. More or less, the three religions in the novel are all the same, maybe differing in practice just enough to provide one with more motive than the others for being a “bad guy.”  But even that is not convincing, its just plausible. Sanderson wrote a couple of places online, at least, wherein he lets readers have a little insight into his religious storyline:

(https://www.librarything.com/topic/10977#117424)

(https://www.librarything.com/topic/11200#126503)

However, if you are going to run into this sort of territory and you want to really make your characters’ thoughts and actions meaningful, get into the religion and hammer it out, drive it home, color it up. Taking no risks with it causes the whole novel to feel a lot less impactful than its potential obviously showed.

Do not get me wrong – I absolutely do not want chapters and chapters of info-dumping and vague pontificating on the topics of religion and politics. Yuck.

None of this is bad writing, though.  It just is not very lively writing. It tends to be somewhat dull and measured. And being very measured makes the pacing seem very, very, very (600 pages very) slow. That being said, I am comfortable with the fantasy qua soap opera scenario and so I was quite content, though not enthralled, to follow the three main characters.  The novel is told in chapter points-of-view of Raoden, Hrathen, and Sarene.  I discovered (according to the All Wise Internet) that most readers disliked Sarene. She was my second favorite character.  A lot of readers just did not like this or that about her.  I liked her because she is too good to be true.  She’s really impressive – and she always, really, lands on her feet – like a cat!  Readers found her ridiculous because she seems to have endless amounts of willing helpers for no real reason. I liked this character, though, and while she is not entirely excusable, she is likeable.

Raoden is the character I liked least. I mean, maybe even more than the bad guy.  I found Raoden quite toxic and annoying and tedious.  Of the three chapters, I dreaded reading his the most.

Hrathen is actually the character that seems the most legit.  He is at once arrogant and yet insecure. He struggles with obedience and faith and job duties. He has failures in his past as-well-as successes that now he feels are failures.  He is a dynamic character and how he ends and whom he falls in love with – yes, other readers found this eye-rolling and obnoxious, but I really enjoyed it.  Again, its a soap opera, and I loved this element. It made me a happy reader. Go away you bitter, sour reader-grouches; y’all know this was utterly suitable for soaps!

Now, chapter 38 came out of nowhere for me. I was thoroughly surprised. I did not see that coming. So, when I got to chapter 38, I put the book down and commented on how surprised I was. I suspect it is because Sanderson’s measured writing in this one lulled me a bit and then surprise! I guess other readers might have suspected. But you know, and then this whole thing went sideways – yet again, so it really seemed inauthentic of Sanderson to have done that to me. But of course, it is TOTALLY what I would expect in a soap opera.

Poor author.  His first published book sold well, got a massive amount of readers, but it also opened him to a wealth of criticism.  Its over 600 pages so it gives critical readers lots of fodder for their expert (and non-expert) complaints.  At the end of the day, its easy to pull out the rapier and critique like we are all writing for The New Yorker.  We are not. We are just readers that lounge in our chairs and kibitz about books. And that is precisely what the writers and publishers want. Its an industry, is it not?

Elantris is not, absolutely not, a bad read. If you want a bad read, I am sure I can provide some awful stinkers for you to give yourself papercuts over.  Is it a great book? No. For the most part it is above-average, never taking risks, and very measured. I mean, but for a first published novel an author could do worse than be told his writing is “too measured.”  There is lots of potential here where it could have been beyond great, even.  The readers see that potential, though, and maybe that is why Sanderson has such a fanclub.  There seem to be some high expectations put on this author for some reason.  Hrathen could have been one of the greatest ever:  whispered in the list of Raistlin, Drizzt, and Allanon. I am glad I met him and hung out with him every few chapters for awhile, but I feel we were robbed of a very epic character.

I recommend it to all fantasy readers. Its an above-average novel with plenty of soap opera moments and the pacing is slow enough to make you regret your choice in books by page 250.  However, in for a penny-in for a pound, there are rewards to be had here and most soaps feel interminable, right?!

3 stars

Death Shall Come

Death Shall ComeDeath Shall Come is the fourth novel in Simon R. Green’s Ishmael Jones series of books.  I have read the first three in December for three years so far and saw no reason to abandon this habit this year.  I think the first book was the best of all of them, by far.  However, the silliness and outlandishness of the stories entertains me and I look forward to my December reading.   Death Shall Come was first published in 2017.  

The thing that the end of the year (particularly these last two years) needs, is some entertaining, outlandish fun to be had. Something silly and preposterous that does not feel oppressive or dismal.  These Ishmael Jones books are utterly the best fit for my end of year reading. Every novel is basically setup the same way – a country house murder-mystery, which usually is quite gory and involves something un/supernatural.  Ishmael and his vivacious partner, Penny, end up wandering around locked rooms, long corridors, and the bodies pile up.  That’s it – that’s the story.

In this particular novel, we are given just a glimpse more into the character of the Colonel.  However, not much more – and I think nearly every page we are re-told how “military” he is.  Its tedious and I am sure impatient readers will hate the whole thing.  But it doesn’t bother me; I was weaned on Homer, do you know how many times we are reminded of the stock epithets for Achilles and Agamemnon? 

This story’s theme involves a family of collectors of ancient Egyptian artefacts.  The family’s name in the book is the Cardavans.  We are told that for generations the Cardavans have used their enormous wealth to acquire treasures and circumvent legal/monetary obstacles regarding possessing these treasures.  Readers with an ounce of history will know that the famous Howard Carter (“discoverer” of the Tut tomb) was financed by George Herbert, Lord Carnarvon.  A name similar to the characters’ in this novel.  The Cardavans have acquired a freshly-unearthed mummy and are currently relishing in their acquisition.  The mummy is allegedly one of the older Cleopatras (not the most famous Greek one). 

The “twist” in this book, I guess, is that the Colonel assigns Ishmael this mission – not for the mysterious Organization, but as a “favor” to him.  And the Colonel stays with us the entire story, not just appearing in the first and final chapters.  Overall, in this particular story, he was rather flat and one-dimensional. I think I preferred him at a distance.  In any case, he asks for this favor from Ishmael because the Cardavans are his in-laws.  Meaning, we get to meet the Colonel’s wife, Chloe.  

‘What are you so nervous about?’ said Penny.  ‘At best it’s a mummy, at worst it’s a serial killer.  We can handle either of those without breaking into sweat.’ – pg 139

So, Chapter Seven actually had a moment of pulse-pounding for me. I guess I am a silly, simple reader.  Nevertheless, when the suspense was building I was really on the edge of my seat.  Its not a long segment, maybe three pages, tops, but it was fun and I liked listening to the terrifying footsteps on the other side of the door. Listening to them listening to it listening to us. 

A personal anecdote of relevance…. one of my favorite books as a single-digit monster was The Secret of Terror Castle (1964). I read the ever-living hell out of that thing. I loved it. I read and re-read that one many times.  So, I do wonder if the impact of having read that story so many times developed a strong inclination toward country-home/Gothic castle murder-mysteries.  In any case, if the story contains any elements whatsoever of The Secret of Terror Castle, chances are I will be thrilled.  And this has borne out with the fact that I rated John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull (1931) so highly.  Anyway, it should come as no surprise that I will likely try to read the rest of Green’s Ishmael Jones series.

3 stars

Between Light and Shadow

Beyond Light and ShadowBetween Light and Shadow by Sarah Jane Huntington is a collection of self-published short stories, first released in 2021. The thirteen stories are structured to be an homage to/a pastiche of the old Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and Outer Limits (1963) television episodes.

I took a chance on this book since I am having a year of reading small press, self-published, independently published items. I am glad to say, most of my choices have been very successful. Between Light and Shadow is another mark in the win column, if you will. The formatting/editing is a tiny bit rough, but nothing that left me aghast. Once again, the rating I give it feels slightly skewed; I am starting to really hate rating any books that are not mass market from the Big Publishers. 4 stars feels too high for this blog, 3 stars feels way too low for the effort and fun. 3.5 just feels like a cop-out. Hey – maybe do not pay much attention to that rating, deal?

The main element swaying me to get this book was the very strong feeling of honesty that I got from the author when I read the intro. I like supporting authors (et al.) who are genuine and authentic and honest. I love the Twilight Zone, too… so I can appreciate any attempts to work in that specific mold.

Of the thirteen stories, two stories really did not work for me. I disliked “Such a Perfect Day” and I think “Tourists Guide to the Galaxy” probably maybe should not have been included, if the author will forgive my saying so. This latter was so very heavy-handed, negative, and abrasive…. Plus, I feel it has been overdone by so many already. It just is the thud of the book, I think.

However, all of the other stories contain the wonder, twists, entertainment, and escapism that I like to have when reading fiction. These are short stories that are easily digestible, engaging, and all over the spectrum of “speculative fiction.” In particular, “Written On a Subway Wall” and “Trapped” were really good. If a reader is into horror, the gruesome and twisted “Mirror Darkly” works well, even if it is not completely surprising.  Also, I enjoyed “Exploration for Humanity” – even though it felt a wee bit too obvious.

This is a fun collection and I am glad that the author shared them with us. She was not aiming for “Greatest Stories Ever Written” – and she’s honest about that. Instead, she aimed for “strong effort, fun genre, and comfortable writing.” Huntington nailed it! Readers who need some easy-reading with some similarity to the sentiments of those old television shows will be mostly satisfied with this collection.  And I am encouraged to try more of her writing. (I think I saw that she has a new horror-genre novel out.)

3 stars

The Gunslinger

Gunslinger coverThe Gunslinger by Stephen King was first published in 1982, but it was actually separate stories that were previously written that made this into a “fix-up” novel, as they are called. In 2003, King famously revised and updated the novel. I do not know if this is the second or third time reading this novel.  Every time I read it, though, I feel more or less the same way about it – its really good in retrospect after having read the next two books or so in The Dark Tower series. Taken on its own, it is exceedingly weird and disjointed and awkward.

For better or worse, it is a fact that in our lifetime, Stephen King is one of the most famous and well-read authors.  His name and works are included in that batch of fiction that have become cultural references, common knowledge, and household facts.  Even people who do not read at all (yes, horrifically, these are real) are able to have some concept/referent for ‘Stephen King.’  I have not read King like many of his fans. I have read maybe two or three of his non-Dark Tower books. I have no idea if he is a good author or not, because I feel like I cannot assess him accurately without reading far more of his catalogue. 

So, The Gunslinger is an odd fix-up of stories that King wrote in the late 70s and early 80s. There is not a whole lot for me to say about the novel because everyone on the planet has read it and has given their opinions on it. There is nothing new, surely, that I can provide regarding the actual novel and info about it. For example, many fans of the book absolutely adore the first line, which seems to evoke all the best feelings and images of all the best adventures and entertainments. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”  There it is, again. All the readers quote it and now I can be counted as one of them.  I think the critical point about this first line is that it is very deadpan and very simple. Three items and two actions: man in black, desert, gunslinger…. one fled, one followed.  Contained in this little statement is all the makings of the excitement and thrills and hopes and curiousity of all readers; it seems paradoxical that such a bland sentence can do so much.

The spare writing, though, in which each sentence seems to contain so much meaning and significance, is what I consider to be the overall characteristic of this novel.  It is spare like a desert.  The writing is matter-of-fact, but yet at times somewhat poetic.  However, the poetry is not flowery or fancy, it is just honest and matter-of-fact as the rest.  Instead of having “dynamic” characters who are overly complicated and full of layers of delusions, it seems these characters are blunt and direct and very honest. The main character, Roland, is utterly honest with the reader. 

Roland is a big deal.  He is a character that, in his will, his strength, his skill, and his honesty, he appeals to readers.  He is presented as a “simple man,” meaning he is unimaginative and not prone to time-waste.  However, he is also very complex because he is not a farmhand or a grunt or a lackey.  A character that wrestles with “inner demons” and with the fabric of the kosmos is hardly a “simple man.”  However, it is clear straightaway that Roland is also not a “good man.”  This is not a sinless, shining knight of virtue and holiness. So, he causes readers to constantly have to wrestle with his morality.

The novel is a sort of Western, Dark Fantasy, Steampunk mash-up that has a vast history and expanse of setting – but it also feels unclear and confused.  The lack of detail and linear layout makes for some of the dreamy and bewildered feeling in the book.  I doubt King, at the time, had any clear ideas about all of this and purposely left his world-building vague and open. He did a good job because there is definitely an ominous and mysterious kosmology that pervades every scene.  The Western is medieval in tone and that is a very cool spin on the medieval-based fantasy usually found in books. 

Not that all of this can be granted to King. He has always admitted that he was heavily inspired by Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1852).   In fact, this whole business is reduced a bit once the originality is denied it and we realize that Browning handed a very creative author a silver platter full of perfect delicacies and delights.  Both that work and King’s work are strange.  Dream-like and wondrous and maybe a bit apocalyptic.

The major thing that bothers me about King’s work is the vulgarness that comes through.  I mean, I rarely read anything so vile and vulgar. Horror, as I have said previously, is often vulgar. I do not care for this kind of writing and it always makes me wary of a soul that creates and writes such stuff.  In a sense, we all write about what we know and because I could never write with such vulgarity, I wonder about the writer who knows such stuff.

The reason I re-read this novel is because lately I have been sensing the cracks in the kosmos. Hold on! Do not click away thinking I am some looney! I have been working on linguistics/logic and the odd statements that defy the good, common, healthy reasoning that we all have come to know and love. Counterfactual, self-referential, contradictory, ambiguous, paradoxical sentences that most people shrug at, other people are amused by, and metaphysicians are deeply disturbed by.  Cracks in the world, my friends. The sentences that the computer programmers just want to ignore. The sentences that the poet knows about, but cannot understand the ramifications.

Plus, I have been reading Plotinus and Porphyry and Proclus. WE, the systematic Aristotelian science-men, have long since turned up our noses at such esoteric hogwash – all that Hermetica and astrology and alchemy and Kabbalism stuff that none of us take seriously. However, every great immense once-in-awhile there is a line or a comment in the Enneads or something that sends a bit of a chill, like a draft through a crack in a cellar wall. Mysticism and magis and its all very hocus-pocus, so we do not look at those parts directly; we dismiss them as silly esoteric junk that was ridiculously overlayed on the substantial and meaty ontology. I guess.

When Roland says: “The world has moved on,” it also feels like a cold draft. I feel like in 2021, with the strange things going on in the real world, yeah, it is easier to fall in step with Roland as he crosses the desert.  The best thing about Roland is that he takes it in stride. The world is dying, everything is wrecked, there are abominations and absurdities everywhere, the remnants of the future (somehow) – but yet Roland just accepts it as it is. Zen master level.  Pretty cool character, this Roland.

Overall, its hard to separate the vulgarity and the derivative context from the book.  So, sure this one is only two stars. But when I read further into the series and then look back, I want to give this maybe four stars.  Readers who have not read this (are there any?) will likely be shocked, confused and not know what to make of this craziness. Helps to think of the world moving on and there being cracks in the kosmos, I think.

2 stars

Dissolution

dissolutionDissolution by Richard Lee Byers is part of the large collection of Forgotten Realms novels.  I think that the dark elves, or Drow, are the most famous creations of this expansive franchise. This novel is book one in a miniseries of novels that contain the tale of the “War of the Spider Queen.”  Byers was carefully selected by managing members of the Forgotten Realms franchise to write this first novel in the miniseries, by which it was hoped new readers could approach the mythology and old readers would re-kindle their love for the franchise.  This first novel was published in 2002 and five others followed afterward, each from a different author.

I have not read much in the Forgotten Realms collection. I read, at least, the first two (very famous) novels in the Drizzt Do’Urden subseries; that would be R. A. Salvatore’s Homeland and then Exile.  I do recall reading some of the third Drizzt novel, but I honestly do not think I finished it. Based on the internal chronology of the franchise, the War of the Spider Queen novels occur just under a hundred years after the first Drizzt novel (Homeland) takes place.

Generally, I get the sense that these huge franchises of novels/games are looked down upon by the “reading elite” as hack/pulp meant solely to feed some stereotyped awkward love for these genres.  Somewhat like a soap opera for teenagers, I suppose.  I do think this is a prevailing opinion, but I do not think it is completely true. Sure, in every genre there is a grouping of zealously loyal fans.  However, when the fans are not in adoration of the most literary or academic pursuits, there does tend to be a negative view taken.  But there is a simple joy in following these serial, melodramatic (and often formulaic) fantasy-soap operas.  And, whether people like to admit it or not, there are some great creations that come out of these large franchise series.

The Drow, or dark elves, are one of those really interesting creations. If you think of Forgotten Realms, you will have some thought to the dark elves. They are something like – though I hesitate to push the negative analogy too far – the opposite of the stately and high-minded elves brought to us by J. R. R. Tolkien. Now, I know Tolkien’s elves are hardly original, but his representation seems to have supplanted the older Germanic/Scandinavian conceptions.  So, the Drow live in the Underdark (underground) and have a matriarchal society infused with magic.  It is hardly an amoral or anarchic society, but the rules are very much based on ambition, political power, uneasy alliances, and treachery. Love, compassion, mercy, and trust are not really parts of this world. Naturally, this is what makes these dark elves so dang interesting in any storyline.

Byers was elected to write the opening novel in this miniseries that is entirely focused on the Drow world. The storyline is vast and complex and he had to leave a lot of room for the following authors to work, while giving them a good footing. And so the majority of this novel is functional and introductory.  Byers gives us specific examples of the Drow behavior and activities.  Then, he begins to follow a couple characters specifically and begins the subplots.  The reader bounces back and forth between a variety of characters, some of these are more interesting than the others.  I will say that for the first half of the book the thread following Pharaun Mizzrym and Ryld Argith seemed stupid. It was the part that caused the most aggravation in my reading.

Finally, just past the halfway point, the Byers started to bring some of these threads together.  Finally, what seemed like pointless roaming in circles actually started to converge.  This was good because it was getting to be a real struggle reading along.

The only character – from start to finish – who I found continuously interesting was Quenthel Baenre.  Quenthel is a Drow priestess; in fact she is the Mistress of the clerical school in the dark elf city. Throughout the novel, I found myself following her exploits with more interest than those of the other Drow.

The last third of the novel gets quite intertwined in combat scenes, monsters, magic, and Drow treachery.  And, I will say, there are several scenes in this novel that are a bit darker and more gruesome than one would expect in franchise-owned pulp.  The novel serves its purpose – one does want to read further in the War of the Spider Queen and the Drow remain dark and treacherous. Overall, Byers does a solidly adequate job. But nothing here is beyond what one should expect and the novel has some awfully sluggish sections.

3 stars

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs (2011)

I recently read this novel – but have been sluggish about writing the review for it. My household *had to* read it because of the forthcoming MOVIE.  And, frankly, it has gotten plenty of good reviews on the Internet. Well, I think the main reason for my tardy review is simply that I was quite disappointed with the novel.  It was originally released in 2011 as Ransom Riggs’ first published novel.  Like a number of novels I’ve read in the last year, this one is a little non-traditional in its narrative.  The author developed the novel around vintage photographs that he found/collected. Allegedly.

I find it difficult to believe that one (the photos) truly preceded the narrative (novel).  I think, maybe, its more likely that the photos had some characteristic that the author focused on and then worked the story by bouncing back and forth between novel-writing and photo-gazing.

The novel is good and dismal and creepy and rather horrific for the first quarter of its pages. I think this is well written and the voice of the main character, Jacob Portman, is  realistic and honest. I was, however, surprised at how much the dude cusses. In a “young adult” novel it was a bit much. In any case, I did think the novel had a strong main character, some solid creepy elements, and a good setup.

But as the novel progressed, things started to fall apart. Mainly…. time travel. Oh my goodness doesn’t this trip up every author, screenwriter, and playwright. So, there is a basis of time travel – and it is an acceptable level of suspending disbelief. However, for whatever reason, I felt like the author kept fiddling with the concept and trying to tweak it just so. Instead of enhancing the setting of the novel, it made it convoluted, confusing, and a bit dumb. I want to write the sentence “the time travel didn’t make sense,” but obviously that is heavy with meaning already. I think Riggs just kept mauling the time travel element so much that it ends up just being a frustration.

The main character’s family is a wreckage. Once again, in handling these characters, I think the author went too far. He overwrote them and their troubles.  It is perfectly fine to have a character who has some struggles, but for this genre and for supporting characters – this was just too much. Maybe this is a nitpick? But honestly, I truly disliked Jacob’s father as the character seemed unrealistic and overdone.

But, worst of all, the title character, Miss Peregrine, is the biggest disappointment. I wanted her to be awesome. Like Professor X (sure, the Internet has its comparisons!), but more snappy and Gothic. Instead, she is really weak and lame. And useless.

Now, I have seen that in the movie the character of Miss Peregrine will be played by Eva Green, who I think is a striking actress/model. (I do know her from Mont Blanc and not from Penny Dreadful.)  I think Green is a good choice for the character – her visage, plus the way she easily handles camerawork, will make the character a lot better than the weak thing we find in the actual novel. At this point, she is a main reason to see the movie:  making characters stronger by being better than the characters themselves.

Overall, I do think I will read book two. I don’t feel a deep need to continue in the series, but I read things, so what’s another book?  Nevertheless, this is a darker read and a larger disappointment than I’ve read in awhile.

2 stars

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Green Rider

Green Rider - Kristen Britain; cover:  Keith Parkinson; DAW 2000

Green Rider – Kristen Britain; cover: Keith Parkinson; DAW 2000

Green Rider by Kristen Britain really does not seem like it would appeal to me, but I read it and I do not have a whole lot of bad things to say about it.  It was definitely surprisingly good; I suppose I must have had low expectations?  I only have two complaints about this novel, which was first published in 1998.  It is the first novel by the author and the first novel in its series. One of my complaints is that the novel is too long. The paperback runs to 471 pages, but I feel the story could have been ended closer to the “standard” 430 pages. The cover, by Keith Parkinson, made me really want to hate the main character because the girl looks like that mouth-breathing actress from the Twilight movie series…

I have read two of three of Mercedes Lackey’s “Arrows” trilogy. I did not have very many nice things to say about those two books. Shame on me, but I allowed those novels to color my notions of other fantasy novels by a female author and with a female main character. Bad, bad chauvinist jerk!  However, there are some correlations here – both have strong female leads, both females have strong relationships with their horses, both of these are “epic fantasy” settings (swords and arrows, a king’s road, etc.)  Here is the crux of the matter:  if we compare the two stories, Britain’s is more balanced, honest, and “realistic” than that rubbish Lackey wrote, by a large margin.

I’ve given two reasons, so far, why I should not like this novel. The cover resemblance to the Twilight series and the similarities with the Lackey series. What possessed me to attempt reading this?! Finally, there is another reason.  I am not a wild maniac for things Irish. I have no issue with the Irish. But what else can I say – my heritage is much farther East. Celtic stuff and green stuff and difficult Gaelic words and Yeats and Joyce’s mythologies…. I mean, I don’t even like Guiness! So, with all this green and pseudo-Gaelic feel, I really had no business reading this novel.  Granted, the similarities to things-Irish is only with brief hints.

This is not grimdark, so fans of that subgenre should not expect the grim darkness found in those novels. Further, this novel should not be judged by comparing it to grimdark. I bring this up because this is an “older” novel – and since it was published, fantasy seems to have gotten a whole lot heavier and grittier.  I enjoyed this novel because it was really well-balanced.  There is an evil villain and some grisly monsters, but there are also light-hearted moments and a touch of silliness.

Karigan is at private school, she gets sent home and en route she gets waylaid by a dying Green Rider.  The Rider presses her into service to deliver the message he was carrying to the King.  Karigan does so and meets with assorted adventures. She, naturally, gets help when she needs it and often rethinks what incidents brought her to the path she is on.  She sometimes loses heart, but overall she “does the right thing” because she was raised rightly and is strong-willed.

I actually liked all of the characters. Maybe they are stereotypical and maybe this is perfectly “standard fantasy” fare, but I am very okay with that. The storyline was really quite obvious and almost on the “folk tale” level wherein everyone already knows the story and we are just here to see the presentation. It is like that joy small children get with having a story read to them that they already know by heart.

Around 310 there is a “big reveal” that all other readers will expect, but which, of course, surprised me. This comes late in the novel, and helps re-boost interest in a storyline that is dragging a bit. Another moment occurs on page 343; a villain is revealed! This moment is interesting because should flip the opinions of the reader who fell hook, line, and sinker for a particular fantasy trope. I am purposely being vague to not give away spoilers.

The magic system [using contemporary geek-terminology] is a bit wonky and specious. I do not think it is Britain’s area of expertise. Maybe in future novels she works this out better?  In this one, she doesn’t solidify what magic is, how it works, or where it comes from. Its everything it needs to be to whomever needs it.  Overall, the word I keep coming to with this novel is “balanced.”  It is not great literature, but it is interesting and engaging. I did not hate the characters and even though the plot was familiar, it did not feel labored. I was entertained.

4 stars

The Curse of the Blue Figurine

Blue FigurineThe Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs is the first in the Johnny Dixon series.  I have never read it before – but finally, in 2013, now that I am old and haggard, I finally got a copy.  I actually am working my way through as many John Bellairs novels as I can.  Overall, these are excellent.  I recently re-read The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt, which was as awesome as I remember it being when I was a small person.

But this novel is even better.  I was thoroughly impressed. I thought for sure that I was going to be somewhat disappointed – how could Bellairs do better than the other book I read?  And yet! And YET! This one is excellent.

As I mentioned, this is the first book in the Johnny Dixon series.  So here, I finally got a lot more background on Johnny’s grandparents and Professor Childermass. I learned more about how Johnny came to live in this town and about the school he attends. And the church that he attends.

First of all:  yeah, parents in 2013 who are all stuffy and politically-correct and shelter their munchkins are never going to let them read these books.  These books are all kinds of “inappropriate” – but not because of the usual reasons you might think.  There’s alcohol and Church and the adults are realistic.  Nothing sanitized, really, in here.  But it isn’t bawdy, rowdy, or uncouth, don’t get me wrong. Secondly:  Johnny is so full of guilt and low self-esteem that he probably isn’t the type of character one finds in current-day novels.  But he’s really a great kid! In fact, he’s the best! I love Johnny!

I love all of the characters.   And this story is creepy and eerie and has a lot of supernatural elements in it. And the supernatural elements are kept real and true – no one attempts to erase, explain, or devolve them. Awesome! I love the language and constructions that Bellairs uses.  He’s really a charming author and he writes with such a fun style.  I am subtly pressurizing my entire household to read this novel.

5 stars

Wolfhound Century

Wolfhound CenturyI am blessed to know some really cool people.  One of them is Little Red Reviewer – who loaned me an Advance Reading Copy of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins.  The novel was published in hardback in March of 2013.  I had my eye on it from the time I read snippets about it on some “upcoming novels” site.  I really enjoyed this book and I think I will probably eventually purchase a copy.  I am also given to understand that this is the opening book in a trilogy.  I think the next installment is due out in early 2014 (which seem really far away right now).

This book is not for every reader – this is not the sort of mass market paperback novel one picks up at the airport that contains one of the standard plotlines and uses stock characters.  Some people have compared this novel to China Miéville’s writings. I am not comfortable with that comparison, but I can see how some readers might feel there is a likeness.  Miéville is a unique and intelligent author, but I do not think that anything that is unique and intelligent therefore must take after him. The main element that sets this book apart is that the writing style is so unusual.

I really loved the writing style in this novel. I like the way that Higgins developed the setting of the novel; the setting is big, dark, real, and potent.  All of the descriptions used in the novel portray a great intensity.  Some readers have referred to this as “world-building,” again I differ because I feel world building is something less esoteric and more infrastructure related.  World building is making the map of the setting and making sure the physics is “sensible.”  What Higgins does in this novel, however, is poetry.  At no point did I feel that the writing was pretentious or bombastic, but each chapter was very well-written.  This is Higgins’ debut novel, though, and there were a few minor items where the writing is not perfect.  But the drop off is not steep. Overall, Higgins is an excellent writer.

The novel is set in an exceedingly interesting location, a sort of alternative Stalinist-Russia.  The country is surrounded by an immense forest and the terrain and the geography play a role in this novel.  Not merely in a way that maps out places, but in a way that actually infuses the plot itself and affects the characters significantly.   The pseudo-Stalinist Russia of the novel contains the dystopian elements of unending war, a police state, and a huge governmental edifice of buildings and departmental offices.  The weather is cold and rainy and dark.  And the landscape is full of bridges, streets, stonework, and iron.

The Vlast is the regime.  And in chapter 22, Higgins treats us to a scene reminiscent of 1984‘s “two minutes hate.”  In chapter 22, we are told that the main character:

….had looked up synonyms of Vlast once.  They filled almost half a column. Ascendancy.  Domination. Rule. Lordship. Mastery. Grasp. Rod. Control. Command. Power. Authority. Governance. Arm. Hand. Grip. Hold. Government. Sway. Reign. Dominance. Office. Nation.

But the novel is also fantasy. Here is a novel that is really difficult to jam into a genre. It’s fantasy – because it takes place in an alternative historical location, but also because it involves fantastic creatures like giants, golems, and “angels.”  I put quotes around angels because in this novel these creatures are nothing like any typical conception of angels.  Golems, giants, angels, magical properties, dryads – but all of these elements are written seamlessly into the novel so that it seems commonplace and normal and unremarkable that giants are puttering around a pseudo-St Petersburg.  The characters in the novel must deal with the Vlast as well as the supernatural.  This makes for a fascinating read.

Higgins is also, obviously, a very intelligent writer.  He has either done an extreme amount of research or he’s well-educated to begin with (perhaps both).  And it shows through this novel on every page.  There’s a great deal of conceptual apparatus here to play with – but it is all very subtle and seamless.  At no point does Higgins bash the reader over the head with any of these items.  And maybe things will be lost on some readers, or not resonate with others, but there are plenty of concepts that flesh out this novel so that it’s a full piece of literature and not simply a crime novel.  For example, the entire part of the storyline involving the artist Lakoba Petrov is representative of Higgins playing with aesthetics and politics and propaganda.  Awesome stuff.

Overall, this is definitely a five star novel.  It isn’t for children or the average reader – but it is a beautiful selection for those who like word craftsmanship, esoteric and dark settings, and intense storylines.  It really is not often one finds writing on this level – and it’s just super cool that the novel feels like Russia and has some fantasy elements.

5 stars